A Newer, Hipper Gospel

If you talk to the average person off the street about gospel music (that is, if you can get somebody off the street to talk about gospel music with you), they'll probably say that listening to gospel is just about as uncool as listening to opera, or 'N Sync. Some people find playing or listening to music about God at full blast on your car stereo somewhat of a turnoff. (Perhaps it's the heathen in them talking.) Never mind the rich history of highly versatile performers, past (Mahalia Jackson) and present (Aretha Franklin), who began their careers -- their legacies -- singing for the Lord. Oh, sure, you have guys like Kirk Franklin and dc Talk trying to inject some new-jack hipness into the fold, but gospel just can't shake off that stigma of being positively uplifting.

But once in a while a gospel artist releases an album that lays off the aggressive preachiness for a minute and shows that sound and lyrical content can come together in one heavenly bond. Houston's very own nonsecular songbird, Yolanda Adams, pulled that off not too long ago.

Last year she released Mountain High Valley Low (Elektra), an album many perceive as the closest thing to a mainstream album she's done. (That's quite an intriguing aspect considering Adams, who still resides in Houston, refuses to break away from gospel and go the secular route.) Mountain is also her most successful and widely acclaimed work. The album was certified platinum, officially making it her best-selling one to date. And let us not forget the awards. She received an NAACP Image Award for Best Contemporary Vocal, a Soul Train Lady of Soul Award for Best Gospel Album, as well as a Grammy for Best Contemporary Soul Gospel Album. Even the trendy magazine Interview has raved uncharacteristically about the churchgoing chanteuse, saying, "It's a cool time to know Yolanda Adams right now."

All this success, prestige and acclaim can be attributed to Adams's sparkling voice, but also to the album's musical direction. A pro-Christian album first and foremost, Mountain manages to rope in neophyte listeners with its contemporary R&B-style grooves, with Adams singing the Lord's praises amid some charismatic, up-tempo melodies. Although she claims she had no intention of conceptualizing the album in that fashion, she did feel that as a modern-day performer, she had to get with hipper musical arrangements. "Gospel moves with the times," confirms Adams. "The sound of the music shifts and changes just like any other form of music." But aren't there old-school gospel purists out there who feel that gospel shouldn't be, well, so funked up? "There aren't really any gospel purists in the sense that there are people who want gospel to stay where it's always been," she says. "As long as you're singing about the Lord, people will be happy."

In order to get the right mix of spiritual lyricism and spirited beats, Adams enlisted the services of top-notch writer-producers such as Keith Thomas, Warren Campbell and the dynamic duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Just how did she get such seasoned pros to come into the control booth and lay down some tracks for her? "Money," says Adams, laughing. "If you have money, they will show up."

But then again, they could've shown up to get a chance to collaborate with the talent. Adams has been throwing it down, musically and religiously, ever since composer-producer Thomas Whitfield recognized the talents of the then-elementary school teacher during a lead singer stint in the Southeast Inspirational Choir. Whitfield would later become the guiding force behind her first album, 1987's Just As I Am (Sound of Gospel). Adams would go on to release five more albums, including the Grammy-nominated Yolanda Live in Washington, all on the Verity label. But when Elektra chairperson Sylvia Rhone saw Adams perform a rousing show at New York's Beacon Theater, she decided it was time for Adams to roll with the big dogs -- and Adams couldn't be happier with it. "Elektra has been very supportive of me and the music that I perform," says Adams.

It looks like Adams can't keep her plate empty. Apart from touring around the country with respected gospel diva Shirley Caesar and upstart duo Mary Mary for the "Sisters in the Spirit Tour," Adams can reach her fans in other places. She just released a holiday album, Christmas with Yolanda Adams, in October. She recorded a duet with Sting for a Christmas album benefiting UNICEF. She also hosts Inside the Music with Yolanda Adams on cable's Odyssey Network. It's a series of musical variety specials where Adams performs alongside such popular artists as Deborah Cox and Brian McKnight. But the project she is the most proud of is the upcoming birth of her first child (a girl, by the way).

But ultimately it's knowing that she, along with other contemporary gospel performers like Fred Hammond and Kirk Franklin, is making an impression on the gospel artists of tomorrow. "It's nice to see that young people who are just starting in gospel are looking up to us the same way we looked up to other performers when we first started," Adams says.

It's the little things like those, Adams believes, that make her truly blessed.